'Good Old Days' of Air Travel Weren't All Good, Bad Times of Today Not All Bad

Airline performance has declined in some ways, but improved in others.

— -- Webster's defines "quality" as a degree of excellence or superiority. Think today's airlines have a problem in this area? So does the new Air Quality Rating report.

According to the respected AQR, airline performance has declined in terms of lost bags, on-time planes and passenger complaints. As the report dryly notes, this "does not send a positive message to consumers that see an industry enjoying positive economic times."

Gather 'round, youngsters, while I regale you with tales of the Good Old Days of Flying, when quality reigned. A few examples:

Plenty of room. No cramped seats back in the good old days and there were a lot fewer seatmates cramping your style (and legroom). According to Bureau of Transportation Statistics for 1954, load factors averaged 57 percent, which then dropped into the 40-plus percentage range during much of the 1960s and 1970s. With half-full planes, you could stretch out, lie down and revel in the roominess. No impromptu lie-downs on today's planes because there are hardly any empty seats.

Plenty of service. Free bags? Of course, and ditto for carry-ons, though most gentlemen didn't use them because overhead bins were for hats. Meals were free and so was your freshly laundered blanket and spotless pillow. As far as fees were concerned, there really weren't any; you bought a ticket and that was that.

Plenty of style. The old Emily Post Etiquette guide decreed gentlemen donned suits for traveling and vintage airline ads show most of the ladies in dresses, hats and gloves even into the '60s (though the hemlines started rising). I'm not saying this was better, but it does provide an interesting contrast to the recent incident on a Southwest plane where a young man reportedly attempted to fly in a T-shirt emblazoned with the F-word. Nope, he didn't fly.

Plenty of stewardesses. Longtime flight attendants of my acquaintance say they definitely don't miss the "stew" days of mandatory girdles and weigh-ins, nor do they miss the hot pants some airlines had them wear. A few passengers are nostalgic for those days, recalling incredibly attentive service and non-stop smiling, but I'll trade phony grins for a no-nonsense veteran any day.

Nevertheless, the good old days could be very, very good except for one little thing: Astronomical ticket prices. You really did have to be rich (or close to it) to fly with any regularity.

But wait, you say, what about the 1954 vintage airline advertisement you saw online touting fares from New York to Los Angeles for just $99? The facts: That $99 fare was the one-way price, and it did not include taxes. More to the point, that price was in 1954 dollars; the equivalent cost in 2015 dollars is a breathtaking $1,727.

Today a cross-country round-trip ticket costs about $300, which is within reach of just about anyone, and people are reaching. As recently as 1978, about 275 million in this country were flying. By 2014, the figure for U.S. passengers jumped to nearly 850 million.

Of course, a more democratic price structure requires sacrifices like a smorgasbord of fees and smaller, cramped seats. Face it, the only people stretching out on planes today are the expense account crowd in their pricy lie-flat business class seats and the rich in first class (rich in money or rich in frequent flyer miles).

But if you're on a long distance journey, it doesn't matter whether you're a trust fund baby or stuck in a no-frills middle seat because all get something priceless: The fastest and safest mode of transportation we have.

Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.